Cary Grant vs the Production Code

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Cary Grant wasn’t born in Bristol in 1904. Rumor has it he was born on the set of She Done Him Wrong in 1933, having been spotted on the studio lot by none other than Mae West. She cast him in the movie and a long successful career was thus started. And what could be easier? He was young, tall, dark, handsome. He had a lot of charisma, talent and sex-appeal. He also seemed to fit very well into that mad world of 40s and 50s Hollywood.

He was no longer Archie Leach. Archie Leach was left in Bristol, still performing pantomime at the Hippodrome theatre. If anything, Archie Leach remains in movie history as the clumsy and naive barrister played by John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda (1988). In fact, Cleese was paying a tribute to Cary Grant, borrowing his real name for the protagonist of his award winning comedy.

Funnily enough, by coincidence or not, the film that made him a star, She Done Him Wrong, prompted the creation of The National Legion of Decency. The sexual chemistry between Cary and his co-star, the sultry Mae West did not go unnoticed by the censors, the film being banned in Australia, Finland and Austria, as well as the state of Atlanta. Cary Grant’s career would soar from this point on and his talent as both a comedian and a dramatic actor would gain him international fame and respect in Hollywood.

It is easy to forget that the Production Code was set in place for the majority of Grant’s career, forcing quite important restrictions on his performance. He was one of the many actors to be working within the boundaries of the Code, but he was one of the few that seemed to thrive on it. His comedic talent of delivering double entendres helped him keep things decent enough for the censors and exciting enough for the audience to enjoy.

He helped create the fast paced kind of comedy, based on extremely snappy and witty dialogue. Comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), to name a few, were very much ahead of their times and are still getting big laughs out of a modern audience. Even in more serious roles, Cary Grant was showing his suave leading man attributes. His collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock on films like Notorious (1946), North by Northwest (1959), To Catch a Thief (1955) has become legendary. Hitchcock never took the risk of casting Cary Grant in a role as a villain, but he did state that Grant was willing to take such a step, not shying away from challenges in his career.

He expressed a particular dislike in the style of Method acting and its three main representatives: Marlon BrandoMontgomery Clift, and James Dean. He was quoted as saying “Some producer should cast all three of them in the same movie and let them duke it out. When they’ve finished each other off, James StewartSpencer Tracy and I will return and start making real movies again like we used to”. (source

He showed thus lucidity in observing that times were changing and acting was changing as well. His style of acting belonged to the golden era of Hollywood, where the Code was making things difficult and exciting at the same time and where braving through a restrictive set of rules to make a picture was a work of art in itself.